Transcript for Sam French on his film "Buzkashi Boys"

Charles Monroe-Kane: Well Jim, the film was one of the shorts nominated for an Oscar this year, and for me it really stood out. First, because it was filmed in Afghanistan entirely by US and Afghan crew.

Fleming: Which is pretty amazing. It’s a country we’re at war with.

Monroe-Kane: I can’t imagine making a film, a real film, at a place we’re at war with. But the other thing that really stood out to me was the theme of the show. Sure, it was a coming of age film, but it was set in the age of Buzkashi, which was a horse polo game played with a dead goat instead of a ball. I was curious, so I sat down with filmmaker Sam French to find out some more.

Sam French: Well, I first saw Buzkashi when I first got to Afghanistan in 2008. I had arrived fresh off the plane, and didn’t really know what to expect when I got there. With a bunch of people I had met in Cabo, we went to [inaudible] up North, and [inaudible], which was the new year over there. Up in [inaudible], they really play Buzkashi. It’s really huge. So, this humongous field with mountains in the background, and there were no out of bounds. So, there are thousands of people standing in a big circle, and sometimes the horse would just plow right through the crowd.

Monroe-Kane: Well, I think I should interrupt here. I don’t think anyone listening knows what [inaudible] is, including me. How is it played? What’s the game?

French: So, Buzkashi is a national sport of Afghanistan. It’s been played for hundreds and thousands of years. It’s basically horse polo, but it’s played with a dead horse carcass instead of a ball. So, if you could imagine 12 foot tall men on horses, riding around on a field, trying to grab a dead goat carcass, gallop around a flag, and put it into a circle in the field…

Monroe-Kane: Y’know, I can’t actually imagine. But the more I think about it, I did spend some time looking it up, and it was amazing to see. It looks just intense and brutal. And I think the matches I saw were in the snow and the mud, and people were running into spectators, and all the time there’s this dead goat being thrown into the center. It was kind of amazing, actually.

French: Buzkashi is an incredibly visual game. Just imagine horse polo with a dead goat carcass. And there’s a 40, 50 to 100 horsemen on…

Monroe-Kane: Did you say 100?

French: 50 to 100 horsemen. In [inaudible], where I first saw Buzkashi, there were hundreds of horsemen in this wide, vast plain, with dust being kicked up out of the horses as they thunderously galloped past the crowd. All tied together, and their breath is steaming in the mountain, cold winter air, and they’re rearing up over each other. And in the middle of all of this mess, this guy reaches down and grabs the goat carcass from the ground and struggles and breaks free from the scrum, and gallops’ a way around this flag, and back, and throws the goat into the circle.

Monroe-Kane: With his hands, right? There are no tools!

French: With his hands, right. If you’re rich is down to the ground and grabs with his hands. There have been stories of horses that have been trained to pick up with their teeth, but that’s a legend.

Monroe-Kane: It’s a good legend, though…

[excerpt from movie]

Monroe-Kane: What does it mean? I know it’s the national sport of Afghanistan, but what does it mean to Afghan culture, this sport?

French: I was shocked when I went to Afghanistan, that they like to fight in everything against each other. So, I went to a camel fight in [inaudible], There’s dog fighting, there’s cock fighting. It’s an incredibly poetic country, but it’s a harsh country as well. And the Afghan people are as hard as the mountains, and have incredible hospitality and I was welcomed warmly into many Afghan house’s, and I absolutely loved them. But, also very hard. Buzkashi, I think, is a testament to how hard they really are. I think, at one point, an American cowboy came over to Afghanistan and went to a Buzkashi game, and planned to get on a horse and join, and chickened out, because it’s pretty violent.

Monroe-Kane: And it’s the country. I remember Afghanistan was once described to me as brutal and beautiful. It seems like the sport is beautiful as well.

French: Yes, indeed it is.

Monroe-Kane: Now, we should back up for a second. Could you give us a brief sketch of the film?

French: Sure. Buzkashi Boys is about two young, 12 year old boys living in Kabul. They’re both very poor. One is a blacksmith’s son, and one is a street kid. He’s a [inaudible], which he ways this sweet seed that he burns in a can, and it’s supposed to ward off the evil eye. So, he’s begging on the street. And they are best friends, and they both dream of being Buzkashi brothers. of course, that dream is almost unattainable for poor, Afghan kids, but they do dream of being Buzkashi riders. And this film is about their life, and their friendship and it’s about that one small step into being men.

Monroe-Kane: I’m hearing you talk about filming Buzkashi, and talking about these boys. You’re an American from Philadelphia. How in the word did you end up making film, nominated for an academy award, I might add, a film in Afghanistan, a country in which your country is waging war in right now?

French: Well, life definitely does take some interesting terms sometimes. I guess I could give you the brief background to my story. I went to USC film school, graduate school, in Los Angeles. One of my very close friends and collaborators in film school was this guy, Martin Roe. He’s British, and we did a lot of projects together. He introduced me to this wonderful woman, Anna, who is also British. She worked for the British government, and was posted to Afghanistan in 2008. So, I’m just one of thousands of struggling filmmakers in Los Angeles, so I decide, why not? I’ll just go and see what it’s like, because I imagine that there might be some stories to tell. So, I packed up and went to Afghanistan to be with Anna. And I did. I found a country that you do not see on the news. What I saw on the news before, was just bombings and bullets and the Taliban. I got there, and it was an incredibly rich country. So, I decided to stay and started a documentary film production company, to try and tell some of the stories that you don’t see on the news. And that led to five years later, I was still there. Martin actually came and visited me in Afghanistan in 2009. And we had been writing this $100,000,000 science fiction film script together, at the time, and he got there, and we started traveling around the country, and he was saying it’s for the first time, and I was seeing it for the first time again through his eyes, and we said we have to write a narrative fiction film. And that was the genesis of Buzkashi Boys.

Monroe-Kane: Your narrative fiction film is the first western film to be made entirely in Afghanistan since 1978, since the soviet invasion. I’ve lived a little bit in Eastern Europe, so I have some sense of this, but the logistics, not to mention the danger must have been a nightmare. What was the logistics like? Trying to film in a war in Afghanistan?

French: The logistics of filming definitely was not easy. We didn’t want to just make a film. We wanted to try to help Afghan filmmakers. Because I had been there, and looking around, the TV industry is supported by the international assistance, and it’s doing relatively well. There’s a lot of journalism and video journalism. But the cinema itself, hasn’t been doing very well. Because, when the Taliban came in, they burned cinemas to the ground, they tried to burn all of the film reels they could find, and everyone fled the country. So now, there is a group of older filmmakers there who have come back and are making films, like [inaudible] and [inaudible]. They are wonderful filmmakers. But there is a whole generation, a new generation, a generation gap which doesn’t have access to the resources or the expertise to make film. So, we decided to NGO, nonprofit, called the Afghan film projects, which tried to foster the film industry and help in any way we can to train Afghan filmmakers. Buzkashi Boys we wanted to have as our pilot project, to actually bring on some trainees and have some real world experience in mentor, mentee relationships on the set during the production.

Monroe-Kane: I want to ask a question, because there are a couple shots, including this beautiful bombed out building, just a great place to shoot. But obviously, you have a crane. I can’t imagine that you filled it any other way then with a crane, and boom mikes. And this is a real looking film, a beautiful sweeping cinematography. A crane it seems like a targets to me, with a bunch of westerners. Did you have security? Did if you get bombed? How did that happen?

French: We had about 50 people on set, with a crane and a dolly. So, the security profile was pretty big. We took great pains to make sure that we weren’t a target, by not publishing our schedule, and not being in the same location for more than a day or two, and we also got the Afghan government’s support, which allowed us to get local police to be with us on set, and act as our security. It was much better than having a big western security presence, because they are part of the community.

Monroe-Kane: I was thinking about the film while I was watching it. It was kind of a coming of age film, set in a sports setting, which I dig. But I was like, “why did you choose that”? Was it politically calculated? There is no war and the film. There’s obviously a lot of poverty in the film, but there is no war. All of the subject matter around war, it’s interesting that you chose to not to a film about war.

French: It was a very conscious choice on our part to knots do a film about war. And the reason for that is that he wants to do a universal story, and also clearly show that there are people who live in Afghanistan. Normal people, just like you, and just like me that have hopes and dreams. We didn’t want to make its political, we wanted to make it personal, so we chose a coming of age story, which is a universal story. It’s about two kids who take one a step into adulthood. Everyone’s gone through that. And they have dreams. Everyone has dreams. So, this country, well it’s very poor, there are still people who yearn for a better future.

Fleming: Sam French. He’s director of the film, Buzkashi Boys. It was nominated for a 2013, best Oscar, short, live action film. Our producer Charles Monroe-Kane spoke with him.

Comments for this interview

Thank you for making this fine film (Rev. Glen Thamert, 06/25/2013 - 11:07am)

War is NOT the answer!
Your film helps us move beyond the sad USA war
to see life, not more destruction.

amazing trailer (GeriCC, 06/23/2013 - 1:01pm)

Thank you for this story & all the other pieces about Afghanistan in the show today!